What new things have you learned this week?

Sermon on Luke 18:9-14   

Can you remember anything you learnt at school? Graham’s law of diffusion?

We are never too old to learn and never too old to make a real pig’s ear –  as the political events of the past few weeks have graphically illustrated – whether through incompetence, lack of preparation or hubris – and often the reactions of onlookers range from deep sympathy to schadenfreude. Sadly, I have not heard one word of apology from those who have caused both financial and reputational damage to our country on a truly cataclysmic scale. And even more sadly, I have not expected to hear an apology.

There are many kinds of learning – knowledge, skills and attitudes. All learning can be very hard and sometimes for me, like learning to speak grammatical French, impossible. Learning is often easier for children. My granddaughter Martha has been learning to swim and, until recently, gave a good impression when in the water of a lobster having a seizure. I took her to her swimming class last week and was amazed to see a child moving with grace and speed through the water – it was Martha and she has learnt to swim!

It is unfortunately true that it is often more difficult to unlearn a habit or an attitude that is found to be harmful or incorrect. Our ability to change our opinions and behaviour through reason and persuasion gets less as we age and, interestingly, gets less the more educated we become. Well qualified people are some of the most difficult people to influence as they often think that they know best.

The parables of Jesus should be at the core of any teacher training course as examples of excellent teaching technique. We can all remember some of our teachers. The ones we deeply respected we still call to mind. I remember classes with Mr Morris, Miss DiSteffano, Mrs Fosse – note that their personal pronouns still set them apart,

I find it very difficult to learn good things from people I do not trust. For example I would struggle with a lesson on humility from Donald Trump and one on honesty from Boris Johnson but they each have many loyal supporters. Jesus does not shy away from controversial topics or mind if he ruffles feathers. His authority, clarity and compassion lead his followers to trust him to always tell them the truth. Jesus chooses situations and characters that are always based on the common experience of his listeners and he always leaves unanswered questions for homework. His parables often either compare or contrast how we behave on earth with what life could be like in the kingdom of God. These are stories that are easy to follow and involve people to whom we can immediately respond.

The characters in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector represent stereotypes that would not have needed any further clarification for Jesus’ listeners and may even have been present amongst the crowd. Pharisees were members of an ancient Jewish group that carefully observed the written law but also accepted the oral, or traditional, law and also advocated the democratization of religious practices. In other words, the Pharisee represented a member of the establishment, the elite, and thus was above criticism. He was also a role model for those aspiring to be better Jews. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and Jesus ate at the homes of Pharisees so we must not see them as simply theological bean-counters or betes noire.

Jesus was also familiar with the commonly held opinion of tax collectors as people reaching the final stage of church discipline when a person is excommunicated, or becomes an outsider. The tax collectors in the Bible were Jews who were working for the hated Romans and their oppressive regime. These individuals were seen as turncoats or traitors to their own countrymen. The tax collectors cheated the people because they skimmed money off the top which made them well off and allowed them to enjoy a lavish life-style.  They were generally ostracised so they formed their own clique which further separated them from the rest of society. If this was not enough, they were particularly hated by the Pharisees.

With this line-up I am minded of the traditional jokes, now out of fashion, about a Scotsman, Englishman, Welshman and Irishman which relied on poking fun at stereotypes.

In choosing a Pharisee and a tax collector for his story Jesus would have gained the full attention of his audience amongst which there were, we are told, ‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt’.

As the story unfolds I am sure that the behaviour and attitudes of the two characters were understood and accepted by the audience. That is until right up to the punch-line about which one was justified by their actions.

We often justify ourselves by explaining why we chose a particular action or attitude but, in Christian theologyjustification is the event or process by which sinners are made or declared to be righteous in the sight of God. Atonement or at one ment. That we can be put right with our creator God through his grace is the Good News of the Bible. The secular world would recognise the process as mindfulness, well-being or even good mental health. It means that, having confessed and said sorry, we will be forgiven, accepted and reconciled to God. It means that the burden of guilt and self-recrimination will be lifted from our shoulders and we can again walk with a light heart and a light step.

But let us not underestimate how hard it is to say sorry and really mean it. Some of you may have come across Lucy in the Peanuts cartoons by Schultz. In one strip she is pictured on her way to apologise for something she has said but, right at the last moment, she clenches her fists and shouts, “I’d rather die!”. Owning up to our mistakes is not easy and can be costly.

And there are many unanswered questions left by this parable.

Did the tax-collector change his life-style as a result of his experience? Did any Pharisees in the audience take the message to heart?

Did anyone challenge Jesus?

Did anyone feel secretly glad that they were not like that Pharisee?

The story still has the power to challenge us today because Christ is describing human attitudes and characteristics that have not significantly changed over thousands of years. We find it easier to be concerned about big things – poverty, climate change, the energy crisis, famine but more difficult to translate this concern into our everyday conversations and actions. In the words of Lucy again, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!”

And finally the most important character in this parable – God himself. He has seen the arrogance, selfishness, disrespect and hatred meted out between humans for millennia and, despite it all, he has not given up on mankind.  We don’t have to look far to see the results of these poisonous human characteristics in events taking place every day and yet God has not thrown in the towel and walked away.

This parable should make us all feel uncomfortable as we have all, at some time or another, behaved like the Pharisee and the tax-collector and we all need a timely reminder. But all is not lost.

The Good News of this parable reminds us that if we truly repent then, through the grace of God, we will be justified and will walk ever closer with him in light. There is no greater honour for us to desire and achieve. Amen.

Preached by Andrew Thomas

23rd October 2022